Digital Democracies: Voices, Practices, Stories, Futures

Digital Democracies is about exploring and developing new practice around digital work in public space underpinned by a radical inclusivity and tested through research and development. The programme exists to build a new generation of open public experiences.

Although Digital Democracies exists within the public realm, implementation of new technologies invariably crosses over into extension of the digital self and the digital realm.

This series of interviews, curated and produced by Donna Close, Associate Director at Threshold Studios, and Prof Helen Kennedy, Professor of Creative and Cultural Industries at University of Nottingham, explores diverse perspectives on the metaverse.

Rapid innovation affords opportunity for democratic experience, and there are multiple perspectives and observations to consider. Digital Democracies wants to provide a platform to test our own assumptions about access and agency through activation of networks of those who are at the forefront of these debates and embed inclusivity into all facets of their practice.

In conversation below, Helen and Donna introduce the intentions and contributors for Digital Democracies: Voices, Practices, Stories, Futures.

black woman with long white hair wearing a VR headset and holding a controller in a workshop space
Image: XRDI. Credit Cheska Lotherington

Prof Helen Kennedy: This is the first blog post in an editorial project that will give voice to the stories, practices and futures as imagined by women who are working in the immersive technology space but who are perhaps not as visible or influential in the public discourse about that future.

There has been significant public and private investment in the Metaverse and it is often described as being the next version of the internet – an imagined future beyond web 2.0 where we have friction free, lag free, access to information, entertainment in an always on, seamlessly navigable, infinitely commodifiable and open metaverse.

Can you tell us more about the Digital Democracies project?

Donna Close: Digital Democracies was conceived as a project that would think about public physical space and digital technologies. It is led by place-based festivals who by their nature, are in the business of transforming public space through creative interventions and balancing creative innovation with a commitment to making a welcoming space for the widest possible audience.

The project aimed to explore the intersection of technology and public space – supporting a diverse range of artists to access technologies for new work in public space, and investigating similar praxis required to make and share work in physical and digital ‘commons’ that are not as public as they may first appear.  The project started 3 years ago and a lot has changed since then. Creatives, businesses and policy makers are grappling with these same ideas about how you create vibrant and inviting public spaces, both physically with the demise of the high street and digitally through the rise of the Metaverse.  The aim of these conversations was to try and draw out some of the common themes between cultural world building in the material and digital realm.

Donna Close: What appealed to you about this project?

Prof Helen Kennedy: The first level of appeal was actually the opportunity to pick up a collaboration that had started with you during our time at Brighton University, but also particularly during the XR Circus project which was a space where we collaborated on putting immersive technologies in the hands of circus artists.    This feels like a continuation of the critical intention behind that project – putting bleeding edge technologies in the hands of those who are least likely to be prioritised for access.   Our shared conviction that these artists might have something really interesting to say with those technologies and some brilliant expertise to bring.  I am also currently leading a large project that is putting immersive tech in the hands of artists and SMEs so this an actual immediate priority for me. I love the opportunity this project provides for us both to indulge/express our shared interest in accessing and amplifying the voices that are important to listen to, but often silent or silenced in those spaces.

Full Tilt Aerial Dance, Nome Hunter. XR Circus

And then also the other thing is that sense that suddenly there is a very loud dominant discourse about the Metaverse, about our online virtual engagements, which has obviously been accelerated by the pandemic and that creates this kind of very particular context for this conversation. At the same time, there’s an awareness of the narrowness of that discourse. and the predominance of the white male privileged voice telling us how the future is going to be: shaping that future, owning that future, designing that future, influencing that future according to a very particular imaginary.  Here we are again recycling the metaphors from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash  – being picked up now and used as almost a template for how our lives should be organised and our data commodified within a seamless virtual domain. I find that frightening, that so few people are – or, such a privileged, narrow voice is determining the priorities for investment for a very particular future. So, for me, this is also an opportunity to participate in or create that space for alternative voices to be heard and to be promoted into that discussion.  We know that when you put things in the hands of a diverse community of artists and you give them the access and also the confidence to work with the technologies, all of the ways in which that creates new possibilities. But then, what happens when those spaces or those practices become subject to commodification or commercialisation?

Donna Close: Absolutely and there are some very interesting parallels between the early days of the urban regeneration discourse in the 90s and how radical artists respond to this, and the possibilities for digital artists to disrupt the way the Metaverse is being designed and built now. I started working in outdoor arts in the 1990s with Zap Productions and our approach was very much based on the European model of Street Art. This was underpinned by a real, and very political sense of what public culture is, occupying public spaces and providing free access rather than engaging only with a very narrow group of people who can afford to come to your venue. This group of outdoor artists and producers in the 80s and 90s were radical in terms of seeking to disrupt the commodification and privatisation of public spaces  – this retail-led gentrification which we are seeing the death of now of course.

Our approach was to provide a solution for businesses, local authorities, shopping centres and property developers who wanted to have ‘lively places’ in order to promote footfall and spending, but to retain a high bar for the curation of the programme –  often working with diverse artists who would actively confront and subvert ideas of what is acceptable in these spaces. Additionally, through the physical act of producing work in public spaces we were unpicking and revealing the nature and limitation of the private infrastructures that govern and restrict what can take place in these seemingly public open spaces.  Some of this was overt but some was much more subtle – for example only being welcome if you were intending to spend money. I think Verity McIntosh (one of the contributors) talks about this in a really interesting way when she talks about her experience with producing Playable Cities.

Prof Helen Kennedy: Yes, and it is so fascinating to see that pattern being repeated into the Metaverse. So it is, exactly, becoming a space which is about retail and about commerce.  Becoming a problematic acceleration of the commodification of every aspect of your subjectivity, your pleasures, your thoughts, your information  – everything becomes part of new marketplace that seems to be following exactly that kind of pattern of closing down of the freedoms, the wildness that it purports to enable.  And, of course, this is where the idea of who gets to decide who is welcome is problematic and the root of that is always who gets to be active agents in these spaces, and who gets to decide what is acceptable behaviour and what recourse people have when things go wrong.

Donna Close: I think that is interesting too, the idea for this editorial came about against a backdrop of awful examples of how women like Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman and Sarah Everard and many others are unsafe in public space and that the supposed neutral governance and regulation of these spaces does not serve everyone equally.

Prof Helen Kennedy: It feels increasingly urgent to intervene in the public discourses around our technofutures and around our occupation of virtual spaces as well as actually, you know, real spaces. There’s a whole sense, we’ve talked about this, the sense that women don’t have freedom of movement, that others don’t have freedom of movement, whether they’re trans people, whether they’re people of colour, whether they’re women, they don’t have the same kind of freedoms of movement within public spaces in our material world. And the very same kind of problematic exclusions are being repeated and baked-in to the way in which our virtual worlds are being created.  Nina Jane Patel (one of our contributors) talks with great passion about how negative behaviours in digital space can have a devastating effect on our wellbeing.

Image credit: BBC News

And so, it feels urgent to me to find ways of intervening and creating space for some different voices, and particularly voices from people who are actually trying to be active in this space, not just for themselves, but for others. So, looking for women who are doing work around inclusion, around opening up the conversation, really importantly. So, that felt like a set of voices that we really wanted to hear. Not just to hear about themselves, but about the kinds of disruptive practices that they’re already engaged with – and we weren’t able to include everyone.

However, our four contributors have given us an extraordinary insight into both the meaningful interventions that they’re making, and also the bigger ambitions about the different worlds they want to bring into being. The different stories they want to tell, the different people they want to take with them on that journey of telling and of creation of world.

Our four contributors are:

  • Nina Jane Patel, Co-founder of Kabuni
  • Verity McIntosh, Senior lecturer in Virtual and Extended Realities at the University of the West of England
  • Nina Salomons, Co-Founder of Anomie XR,
  • Catherine Allen, CEO of Limina Immersive,

They represent a broad range of interventions, from the diversity training and creative approach of Nina Salomons to the research-led policy approach from Catherine Allen.

Donna Close: Yes, and there is a common approach about how open and collaborative all our guests are – how quick to recommend other people and to signpost to best practice they have come across.  This generosity of spirit is another aspect I associate with the world of outdoor arts and festivals – sometimes it is about creating highly curated but open spaces where people can go on their own adventures.

Prof Helen Kennedy: I completely agree.  I think our four participants have thought about things differently through having these conversations. And they have shown a picture of that constellation, those networks within which they themselves belong, and how those networks are themselves really important resources for their own becoming and their own intervention and they want to share these with others.  I hope our readers enjoy the conversations and take this as a starting point for their own journeys.

The series of articles will be released weekly throughout September, starting with our first contributor, Nina Jane Patel.

white woman with shoulder length light brown wavy hair smiling. Wearing a white top.

Helen W. Kennedy is Professor of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Nottingham.   Her research interests are feminist games culture and the wider diversification of access to creative practice; the ludification of cultural experience, innovations in experience design and the cultural evaluation of immersive experiences.   She has led a number of national and international projects seeking to improve women’s access to and experience within spaces of creative production – across screens, VR, and immersive technology more broadly.  A key characteristic of these projects is collaboration and co-creation with individuals, grass roots organisations and sector advocacy groups.

Donna Close. Photo credit James Kendall

Donna Close is a creative director and cultural strategist with 30 years’ experience as a cultural leader working across the private and public sector and developing strategy, training programmes and creative projects all over the world. A festivals specialist, Donna has a particular interest in supporting a broader range of artists, creatives and producers to make use of emerging technology to develop new types of creative practice and new audience experiences.  Donna is part of the leadership of the national project Digital Democracies which she developed for Threshold Studios. More recently Donna developed the multi-award winning 5G Festival for Brighton Dome & Brighton Festival.